01.09.10

The War in the Living Room

In an effort to stem the staggering divorce rate among soldiers, the military has begun a radical new program to train troops to cope with the battles at home.

“Haullllllass, all you fuckups! Outta bed, get working! You there, Ammons, you pieceashit, get your ass outta that bunk or get the hell outta my army!”

That’s the way drill sergeants pulverized the egos of new recruits back when Jeffrey Ammons went through basic training in 1989. “They obviously broke me down and rebuilt me and I’ve been doing the same thing to recruits for 20 years,” said Sgt. Ammons. He has completed three combat tours in Iraq and is gearing himself up for yet another deployment. He shipped out to Afghanistan the day after Christmas.

Over the course of those multiple deployments, his family life went to pieces and he became isolated and depressed. The story is all too familiar. But something began to shift, radically, when Sgt. Ammons was exposed to the most revolutionary change in Army training in four wars— Emotional Resilience Training, a strategy that senior officers say aims to build soldiers up instead of breaking them down. After undergoing the groundbreaking training, Ammons began to learn why he acts the way he does when he comes home after more than a year in the desert—especially with his wife and kids.

During a break on the second day of training, Sgt. Ammons clutched his cell phone to his ear and confessed to his wife, “I’ve been a selfish bastard.”

Ammons was chosen to be among the first 150 mature combat veterans trained for eight days in how to recognize “thinking traps” and “icebergs”—frozen ideas that trigger inappropriate emotions. The paricipants learned how to shift from catastrophic thinking to optimistic thinking.

“If you get into a firefight, you’re not going to be relying only on how to kill and not get killed,” Ammons said, parroting what he heard in a morning training session at the University of Pennsylvania last month. “You can use this training to put the adverse event into perspective – ‘We lost a couple of soldiers, but 99 percent of the unit survived – glass half full.’”

Practicing a whole package of such techniques, the soldiers were told, will make them stronger leaders when faced with the chaos of warfare. But first, they should practice them in resolving battles at home.

Asked how many had difficulty balancing their work and home lives, most of the hands shot up. Next lesson: how to communicate with attention and positive reinforcement when dealing with spouses and children who feel abandoned by long absences.

Surprisingly, these combat veterans ate it up. Not at first. Stanley Johnson, a rebel thrown out of his unit many years ago for starting fights, is now a master sergeant. He was among the senior non-commissioned officers chosen to vet the course last summer. “I came in thinking this is all going to be touchy feely girlie stuff, but it only took a few days and I was hooked,” he told me.

No soldier is being put through this course to be “fixed,” they are told up front. Rather, the Army is committed to educating its entire 1.1 million force, including the Guard and Reserves, in how to be as emotionally fit as they are physically strong and agile. All soldiers will be asked to participate in a mental health assessment when they begin their military service, and receive post-deployment checkups.

The first Emotional Resilience Training group is combat-hardened. About 85 percent male, many of their hearts are wounded and their emotional needs long-ignored. The first 150 chosen for training have almost all been deployed to Iraq at least once, about two-thirds twice, and about a quarter have done four tours.

For the first time in history, the U.S. Army is acknowledging that troops can’t be rotated year after year in “perpetual warfare” without staggering causalities: 20 percent returning with post-traumatic stress disorder, a continuing climb in suicides, and a shameful spike in family breakups. An Army survey last spring found that 22 percent of soldiers serving in Iraq said they planned to divorce or separate from their partner, compared to nearly half that number in a 2003 survey. Women in uniform suffered much higher rates of family dissolution—almost eight percent of their marriages die under the stress of absences, compared to 3 percent for enlisted men.

During the training, I noticed Sgt. Ammons sat in the last row, arms locked in a bulwark across his powerful chest for the first couple of days. But when the soldiers were asked to scrawl out as many positive and negative feelings as they could think of, Sgt. Ammons sprang to attention. Like the rest of the participants, most of the words he wrote were negative: anger, anxiety, resentment, jealous, lazy, tired, exhausted, sad.

Afterwards, we sat together for coffee. Ammons told me he began to lose his hair after he returned from Desert Storm. With the Third Armored Division, he transported a lot of shattered comrades from Medevacs to the combat hospital. After two more tours in Iraq, he is 42 and completely bald. His children have grown into two teenage daughters and one younger son. His family life has been hanging by a thread since he returned from his third tour in October, 2008.

The Army warns homecoming soldiers that they will go through a “honeymoon phase,” maybe two weeks, before they begin to “go out.” Ammons is blunt: “The physical reconnection is over in minutes.” It took four months before he withdrew completely. “You’ve been in a theater of operations for 15 months with your platoon, one guy next to each shoulder, you get snatched out of that and thrown back into your family…your wife is running the household…” He breaks off. “You’re lost.”

Then he looked me straight in the eyes with the shine of dawning self-recognition: “Stuff we’re learning in class, I can see it! My wife had gone out and built new friendships. She’d be talking to her friends on the phone, I’d resent it. My kids were older and had their friends. I became aggressive and hateful. I started going into isolation, drinking excessively to console myself. It was just me and the beer, German pilsner, in my little safety zone.”

His wife said enough. She packed up the kids. The wounded warrior remembers saying, ‘”Okay, cool, go.’ I wrote her off.”

But during a break on the second day, Sgt. Ammons clutched his cell phone to his ear and confessed to his wife, “I’ve been a selfish bastard.”

Stunned silence from the other end of the line. The usual reaction of wives who were hearing these kinds of messages from veterans is something like this: “Is this my husband talking?” Ammons’ wife surprised him, eventually saying, “Quit being so hard on yourself.”

The Emotional Resilience Training program is based on the work of Penn professor Dr. Martin Seligman, known as the father of positive psychology. “This is a way of immunizing our young men and women to prevent depression and high anxiety,” Dr. Seligman told the troops at the Penn session, “The response to setback and adversity is some people go panic or depression, most are resilient and come back, and a large fraction grow.” The objective of building an army that is just a psychologically fit as physically fit is to take that entire distribution and move it in the direction of strength and growth though cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. Seligman and his disciple, Karen Reivich, worked with the Pentagon to adapt these techniques to the military.

Reivich is the lead Emotional Resilience Training teacher, a passionate psychologist, lithe and attractive. She looks nothing like a drill instructor. “I’m a language czar.” she told the men, emphasizing that they needed a common emotional language. “Because to teach this, we all have to have the same names for things.” Her pocket definition of resilience is “the ability to grow and thrive in the face of challenges—bending instead of breaking.” She told the troops, “Compassion, patience, love, those are the words I want us to be thinking about.”

I could see the results even at the end of the first day, when a tall, lean sergeant came out of the ballroom with a broad smile. Sgt. First Class Anthony Gantt returned home to Hawaii this year with his wife and five children for the first time in two Christmases.

‘I love this stuff,” he effused. The instructors emphasized that this first class was chosen for saturation training to equip them to be master trainers of other drill sergeants, all over the country. That’s why they had to internalize the techniques first, so they could talk to their soldiers on a very different, intimate level, drawing on their own experience.

“Physically, we’ve got it down pat,” says Sgt. Gantt. “Emotionally—actually what’s going on inside of us—it’s never mentioned in the Army without being looked at as a weakness. Now we can admit this is just humanness.”

This is the kind of dramatic culture change the creators of the program have in mind. I called Sgt. Ammons a few weeks after the course ended to ask how his family responded to his newly sensitized behavior. “I’m trying not to yell; I don’t want to be the asshole I have been. I actually sat down with my kids and told them I wanted to listen to them, and I expected the same from them. They looked at each other, amazed, like ‘What’s going on with Dad?’”

He intends to spread out all 24 of the leadership strengths identified by West Point, and have each kid pick out his strength. “This way, we can become a stronger leadership family.”

What’s love got to do with learning how to lead soldiers into battle? Dr. Seligman was himself amazed by the results of a study his group did with West Point. Looking at which of 24 signature strengths correlated most highly with strong leadership ratings, their analysis turned up a surprise: The capacity to love and be loved.

Gail Sheehy is an American writer and lecturer, most notable for her books on life and the life cycle. She is also a contributor to Vanity Fair, and can be found at gailsheehy.com